Saturday, August 27, 2011


And then, after dinner, she pulled out the giant box of slides from her family's recent trip to Yellowstone and for the next two hours it was just one fuzzy bison shot after another.

"And as you can see from their delighted faces in this photo," she said while slowly pressing the button to advance the next slide, "the kids had a terrific time."

But seriously, our Yellowstone trip was wonderful. The scenery surreal. The kids amazingly happy campers (when they weren't really sick of having their pictures taken). Here's the summary, by the numbers...

Amount of times I thought We should really do this more often: at least a dozen (which is saying something, considering there was not a good-night's sleep to be found in the entire five-days.)

Number of times Nora begged us to adopt her cousin Rachel as a sister: I lost track. Cousins are the greatest thing evah.

Number of grizzly bears in this photo: one. Can you find him without a pair of binoculars and a huge traffic jam and ranger pulled over to alert you to his presence? We never would have.

We had better luck with the smaller, rodent-family wildlife. Percentage of her own lunch that Nora actually ate the day we set up our picnic in the middle of a pot gut colony: 25%

And we had the best luck in our favorite hunt of all, spotting the Prius in its natural habitat, the National Park. Total number of Prii we counted in Yellowstone and Grand Teton: 68.

Number of photos I took just like this one of colorful bacterial muck that if it had been growing in my home would have gotten the bleach treatment pronto: three dozen.

Waterfalls viewed: at least 10. (Number of times I made my kids pose with their backs to the waterfalls: do I have to count?)

Number of mosquitoes in Yellowstone: a gazillion. Amount of carcinogenic DEET I exposed myself and my children to over the week: toxic levels. Amount of mosquito bites I got in Yellowstone park: zero. Amount of mosquito bites I got while taking this photo in a gorgeous alpine meadow as we paused for a few minutes from our drive over the Bear Tooth Highway in Montana: five.

Number of computer games played, movies watched or episodes of Avatar consumed by my kids all week: zero.

Times I made Ethan pose against orange backdrops the day he wore his funky tie-dyed shirt: "ah Mom! Again?"

Number of teeth lost by Gabie while eating sandwiches: one. Amount of "woe is me!...look I'm still bleeding" mileage gained by said loss of tooth from said child: nearly a full day's worth.

Amount of time we spent slowed or parked in traffic in Yellowstone (usually at the mercy of bison wandering on the road, the big oafs): ...

... : less than the amount of time spent in the presence of sublime forces of nature.

Number of times where I held my breath at the surreal scenery in front of me or laughed out loud as Ethan narrated his own personal wildlife documentary plus amount of times I found it hard to believe I had ever resisted coming: enough that it might be easier for Ken to talk me into next year's camping trip.

Saturday, August 13, 2011


Details and photos from our lovely Yellowstone trip to follow in another post. But in the meantime, some semi-deep thoughts.

Thanks to Semiotic theory, I can no longer take for granted the relationship between the meaning of things and how that meaning is being conveyed. In other words, I can't just assume the vehicle of language is only about getting me where I want to go. We all have to stop and look closely at the vehicle itself. Monster truck or Porche? It makes a difference.

Just a couple of examples because, yeah, none of us have the time for a real lecture today:

I told my students in class the other day that Magritte's Treason of Images was the first time an artist had inserted words right into his painting. The more I've thought about it, the more I was wrong (sorry guys). Maybe Magritte's piece has been treated as revolutionary because it's the first painting to really throw down the semiotic gauntlet* and make us question our assumption about the relationship between art, language and reality (and pipes, I guess). But he was not the first to use words to convey meaning along with imagery.

*I'm wondering what a semiotic gauntlet looks like. Twisted and symbolic and really hard to understand? Definitely French.

This kind of Annunciation scene comes to mind:

I love that it's not possible to say "Hail Mary" etc. without an elaborate banner to go with it. The Angel Gabriel drives a Mercedes.

And a counter example:

I saw this sign on a pole in my neighborhood last week. Now the intended message is, I can only assume, "call me and I'll get you out from under your mortgage quickly." But the real message is another story entirely. Seriously, would you trust your home, your money, your credit rating to some strange dude who scribbled his phone number on a piece of cardstock and tied it illegally to a stop sign? (And then, I think, he drove away in a beat-up Geo Metro with a missing tail light.)

Thursday, August 11, 2011


It really is unfortunate that my week has been outrageously busy with school issues (my class winding down, the kids’ winding up) because I’ve been meaning to write about necks. This seemed timely when I hurt my neck on Sunday. But now here we are on Thursday with my neck finally feeling better and the topic just seems stale.

But if there’s one thing I’ve learned in years of (sporadic) blogging it’s this: if there really is a blog police, they are far too understaffed and overworked to swoop down on my little blog and say, “Hey, Miss Julie Q....if that is your real name...the neck business is old news. You’re not allowed to write about it.”

Thus, in defiance of the blog police, a post about necks, my own and other more famous ones through art.

When I tweaked my neck on Sunday, I was almost amused by the truly bizarre coincidence that I had just barely, earlier that morning, learned how to say “stiffnecked” in Greek. Stiffnecked in Greek, if you care to know (and I do encourage you to slip this into casual conversations), is sklerotrachelos. It sounds like a dinosaur, I know, but it makes a whole lot of sense when you break the word in half and see sklero (hard) and trachelos (neck). Sklerotrachelos occurs only once in the New Testament, in Acts chapter 7 which was part of the readings for the Gospel Doctrine lesson I had been preparing on Sunday morning. What are the odds that I would then have cause to whine about my stiffneck in bilingual fashion for the next few days?

Ken says I’m the only one he knows who is capable of seriously injuring her neck while taking a shower. He knows me well and you might also recall that I once broke my foot in multiple places while making bread. So the shower/neck thing? Not a big surprise. And I don’t want you to think I slipped in dramatic fashion and fell in the shower to acquire this injury because that would be entirely too rational. I was merely lifting my arms to wash my hair when a spasm shot through my neck for no earthly reason whatsoever other than the fact that I am getting old and my body is betraying me one component at a time. For days after this shower, I walked around like an escaped whack-a-mole mole. It even hurt to tip my head back far enough to swallow.

Thank goodness I’m feeling better today and I can find the humor again in the strangeness of it all. I also can see two advantages to this injury.

1. I have now been able to fulfill a lifelong dream of using the words tweak and spasm in the same blog post. I like tweak and spasm because they make terrific, awkward-sounding onomatopoeias. I also think if you tweaked the word spasm and took away its only vowel, it would take a mouth-spsm to say it which would make it all the more onomatopoeia-esque.

2. I now have an only-slightly stale excuse to discuss famous necks in art. I once posted about second toes. Maybe this will become a running blog meme for me. Bodypart Thursdays, we can call it.

I was first introduced to the neck of Marie de’ Medici in a biology book. Marie was the queen of France and the proud owner of a very thick neck. I say proud because Marie made it fashionable to sport thick necks and all the ladies of the court wanted one.

Unfortunately, Marie was in my Biology text because it seems her neck was likely swollen by a goiter caused by the deficiency of iodine.

On to another unfortunate French queen: Marie Antoinette. This portrait of Marie and her children by Vigee Lebrun was especially unlucky. Marie wanted this painting to save her much maligned reputation by showing her as a doting mother. Sadly, one of her children, Princess Sophie, had been painted in the cradle but had to be painted out when she died. The absence of jewelry around Marie’s famously long and beautiful Austrian neck was especially important given her involvement in a certain affair of the diamond necklace. The painting failed to save Marie’s public image and had to be removed from its place of prominence at that year’s Salon, the year being 1789 (queue tolling of bells).

So of course, the story ends with Marie on her way to the guillotine not long after for the removal of head from said neck, where she was sketched by J.L. David, who in addition to being the most famous artist in France was a member of the revolutionary National Convention who had voted for the Queen’s execution.

 No proper list of famous necks in art would be complete without Parmigianino’s Madonna of the long neck. The title says it all. We could wonder about what Parmigianino had in mind when he stretched Mary’s neck to extremes, but it’s more fun to compare her with other similarly necked beauties.

Botticelli’s Venus (indeed the very neck and pose filched by Parmigianino).

One of El Greco’s many ethereal Madonnas. 


And...Barbie (how odd that her neck is out of proportion since the rest of her body has such natural anatomy)

Francis Bacon said, "There is no excellent beauty which hath not some strangeness in the proportion." Those of us with ordinary necks might wish for more strangeness. I remember the scene in the movie version of Sense and Sensibility where Marianne sees Willoughby’s new fiancé, Miss Grey. And even though, like Marianne, we only see Miss Grey from a distance across a crowded ballroom, I’m thinking, who cares about her £50,000 a year, what a neck! How could even Kate Winslet possibly compete? Imagine the casting call for Miss Grey’s role. “No you won’t have any lines so don’t bother reading anything. Just tilt your head back please and look imperious.”

Of course if, like me, you’re left feeling less elegant than all these swanlike beauties, you can always take comfort in the opinion of Steve Martin: “I like a woman with a head on her shoulders. I hate necks.”

Thursday, August 04, 2011

good grief

I saw this shirt at Savers today and just had to share it as a follow-up to yesterday's post.

Memento mori meets girly-girl fashion.

Wednesday, August 03, 2011

Shopping Cart Ethics 1.0

For years I’ve wanted to start a regular segment on my blog called Shopping Cart Ethics where I would cover topics like this: “You’ve arrived at the grocery store and you start backing a shopping cart away from the cart line-up when you realize it has a bum wheel. You can a) exchange it for another cart, leaving the lame cart for the next shopper or b) keep the lame cart and push it through the whole store because if you don’t take it, someone else will have to and you feel strangely responsible, as if the timing of you walking into the store at the very moment this cart was available mandates that you take your turn. Discuss.

Unfortunately, the ideas for this segment usually occur to me at inopportune moments (i.e. naturally while shopping) so I tend to mentally pocket them. Even more unfortunately, the pockets in my brain have many holes and thus any ideas poured into the tops flow out the bottoms like sand out the back of a de-icing truck. To cope, I’ve taken to storing pictures on my cell phone of shopping-related ethical issues. And yes, bewildered Shopko employee, this is why you saw me engaged in an impromptu photo shoot in the boys’ clothes department the other day. Thank you for not fetching your manager. You thought I was odd, I know. But there are odder things than me out there in the world of consumer culture. Case in point, the pajamas you were selling in your store.

Where do we begin? I can only assume pajama manufacturers personally know children who would enjoy crawling into these pajamas before slipping between the sheets for a night of pleasant dreams. But I’m having difficulty picturing these children. Do they poison neighborhood cats before church? Or maybe these kids just have no idea what a skull and crossbones represent. Perhaps they’re thinking “pirates” and nothing more. And they’re thinking the kind of pirates who attend birthday parties with fake eye-patches and go around saying arrr! a lot, not the pirates who fly the Jolly Roger to let their victims know they take no prisoners alive.

What I’m thinking is “why would I want to bundle my child in memento mori imagery before tucking them into bed?” Do I need another reminder that life is precious, my children may not outlive me and we are all, in the words of Samuel Beckett, born astride a grave?

Pieter Claesz, Vanitas Still Life, 1630

Memento mori symbols show up constantly in art, especially after the 17th century when it became positively trendy in Northern Europe to crowd paintings with skulls, hourglasses, burned out candles and cut flowers as reminders of the frailty of life and our limited allotment of time on this earth.

You can see where the Grateful Dead have latched onto this image, bringing the memento mori theme into the 20th century in true 20th century fashion: by turning it into a marketable graphic design.

Just for the record, I also wouldn’t hang a Grateful Dead poster above my child’s bed.

So I found these pajamas to be slightly disturbing and worth discussing in a tone of consternation to launch Shopping Cart Ethics episode 1.0. If you are keeping track, I have conveniently forgotten to check my own blog archives for any signs of hypocrisy. Fortunately, in times like these, my holey mental pockets allow me to continue feeling holier than others.

Tuesday, August 02, 2011

I miss my blog -- what’s left of it.

It's a good thing blogs (and hopefully blog friends) don't disappear if abandoned for months at a time. I'm terribly flakey when it comes to maintaining things, even if they are things that matter to me.

It's a good thing my husband takes care of the cars. And the garden. And the bills.

It's also a good thing I only have houseplants that can go weeks between waterings. Of course, this is because any houseplants I've ever owned that were incapable of surviving this kind of neglect have been thinned from the herd through natural selection, but who wants needy houseplants?

I really have no excuse for my long absence. Except maybe that writing for an audience (even if that audience has dwindled to one: hi mom!) is not easy for me. I tend to take it all way too seriously. I tend to take life way too seriously most of the time, which is why I need my kids. They hardly ever take me seriously. They also remind me that nothing is really as big a deal as I think it is....even posting my personal thoughts in such a way that anyone can stumble across them on their way to searching for a great recipe for cream horns (And I have to say it's odd that my cream horn post is by far the most popular thing I have written to date. It's odd because this is not a food blog and I am not a chef. I have made cream horns exactly twice in my entire life because they are such a serious pain to make. I can only assume my version of the cream horns ranks high on google because I'm the only one amateurish enough to think it's spelled "cream" rather than "crème.") And she's off on a tangent already. It's like she was never gone.

What I really wanted to say was I have some great art worth posting today. Nora is a brilliant artist (and I don't mean brilliant for a five year old, I mean brilliant like Picasso as a five year old). As proof, I offer you her latest piece, at least seven minutes in the making, graphite on folded paper, a fusion of minimalist treatment of space and subtle rendering of natural forms. She calls it "sheep." I call it pure genius. Those ears slay me.